Friday, October 28, 2011

On the death of my editor, Paul Cloos

Paul Cloos

    In 1994, when I moved from writing sports at the Mobile Register (now Press-Register) to news, my editor was Paul Cloos. There were other editors, and I worked with them as well, but the way it worked there, you generally worked under one editor. Paul was still my editor when I left, in 2007.
    Today, he died, due to complications from a motorcycle accident two weeks ago. For some foolish reason, Paul started some years ago to ride a motorcycle -- more like a scooter, really -- to work and back, and he lived in Baldwin County. It was while on his way to work, on the Causeway, that he was hit by a car. He suffered broken bones and serious internal injuries, but was expected to  make a full recovery, if months in the making.
      However, he had a major setback late last week. Over the weekend, Paul's condition improved, but on Wednesday, he took a turn for the worse. He died today (Thursday, Oct. 27.)
       Looking at the picture above, which was in my book, is like looking in his eyes, and it's hard to believe he's gone.
       What follows are several of the many passages in my book, "The Governor of Goat Hill," in which Paul appears. The first is from the acknowledgments and the second contains my most in-depth description of Paul in the book. There are brief introductions to the other two passages.
     This from the Acknowledgements:
      Paul Cloos, my editor since I became a news reporter in 1994, is due a special debt of gratitude for his patience, sense of fairness, and the long hours and weekends he worked improving my stories.

This is form an early chapter:

           My primary editor on probably 95 percent of my Siegelman stories was Paul Cloos. I’d been assigned to Paul in 1994 when I moved from sports to news. Paul is from New York and a graduate of Boston College. He’s a light-skinned redhead, slightly younger than I, and I owe much to him. He is extraordinarily fair and vigilant for any hint of editorializing or evidence of bias within news stories.
           My name was on the Siegelman stories, but he was my silent partner. For Paul, that often meant working well into the night and on Saturdays, though he usually did that anyway.
          I soon learned that in news, and especially with investigative pieces, I had to attribute everything. In those early years Paul and I butted heads almost daily. I would be doing the loud talking with him sitting in his chair, looking up at me with a calmness I wanted to wipe away. I knew I was scoring if he reddened. But moving him from a position? That was another thing.
          “If the sun is shining I have to attribute it to someone else!” I’d complain, to no effect. If a subject of a story was 500 pounds, then “heavyset” was as far as I could go in describing him to a reader.
         It soon became apparent that I needed public records to support almost everything I reported. As a result I became a student of public records and the accepted expert on them within in the newsroom. I developed a near obsession with public records.
      A reporter could turn out three stories a day if all it required was quoting one or more people saying so-and-so is a crook, liar or idiot. I prefer spending more time on a story and laying out what that someone did and why. 
     Quotes help, but if they’re not supported by evidence they’re just hot air transposed to print.
     The point, as I hope is clear, is that Paul -- through his insistence on fairness and, with investigative stories, documentation through public records  -- forced me to become a much better reporter than I was when I began working for him and than I would have been had I not worked for him.

    The following tells about a call I received from the FBI the day  after our (and by that I guess I mean Paul and I's) first major story on the "Goat Hill Construction" scandal, a story that started what became the Siegelman investigation. Paul comes in at the end.

    "I slept in Monday and was awakened mid-morning by a call from Tim Fuhrman, then the number two man at the FBI’s Mobile office. Fuhrman said that some Montgomery-based agents and Jack Brennan, a much-respected former FBI agent then with the attorney general’s office, wanted to talk to me. Soon. As in that afternoon.
     He said it was clear from Sunday’s story that I’d gathered all manner of records.

    The FBI wanted to move fast and it would save them a bunch of time if they could talk to me and copy those records. If it was okay with me, he would tell them to get in the car and come on.
      I knew Tim, if not well, and liked and trusted him. But I’d never had a request like that, and it came with me in bed, groggy with sleep.
     Pluses: The chance to meet with FBI agents, get a first-hand taste of how they operate, and, what the heck, get my ego stroked by a bunch of pros wanting my stuff . Also, did I have an obligation as a citizen to provide investigators with evidence of a crime if I possessed it?
      Minuses: I wasn’t supposed to actively participate in the prosecution of someone I was writing about.
      But: Reporters can and should try to develop a rapport with prosecutors and investigators. There’s almost no such thing as a national political scandal story that doesn’t cite un-named,   "Justice Department sources,” and such relationships inevitably involve some give and take.Was I on the verge of developing such sources for what promised to become a criminal investigation into the Siegelman administration? And if so, wouldn’t this benefit our readers by availing me of information and insights?
       Tell them to come on, I said. I’d meet with them.
       And started having second thoughts after coffee and a shower. I arrived at work and knew I had one option. Tell Paul Cloos, my editor. I suspected he would scotch the meeting on the grounds cited above. If not, and the meeting went ahead, I’d at least have covered my ass.
      Paul was against it and I made no attempt to change his mind. I called Fuhrman, apologized, and said I couldn’t meet. He tried to change my mind, and I sought refuge in the reporter’s trick known as “blame the editor,” the most common variant being, “I hate to have to ask this next question, but my editor says I have to.”

    This last one addresses one of Paul's specialties -- that being, to summarize, high in the story, in one "nut" graph, why readers should be interested in the story and keep on reading. This begins with a comment from Redding Pitt, then the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, and regarding the embarrassing disclosure by the party that it had not maintained records relating to a secret, $700,000-plus loan from the Party to the Siegelman-controlled Alabama Lottery Foundation.
      Repayment of that loan largely came by way of two undisclosed $250,000 donations given to Siegelman by then HealthSouth Corp. chairman Richard Scrushy. These donations were at the heart of the "Scrushy" part of the prosecution of Siegelman and Scrushy as well.

   “We keep loan records, it’s just that this particular one, we have no records of,” said Redding, in a quote that didn’t engender confidence in the party’s financial practices.
     The next day’s story quoted Pitt’s promise to locate all pertinent records and file an amended disclosure with the secretary of state. It included the following “nut graphs,” those one or two paragraphs we newspaper people use to summarize the gist of a story and/or convey to a reader why the issue being reported is important, or in any event, why we think so.
     These graphs, probably fashioned by Paul Cloos, our nut-graph specialist, proved prophetic:

    "Given the amount of money involved and the questions that remain unanswered about the Democratic Party’s role, there may be numerous lottery-related donations by lawyers, political action committees, businesses and individuals that remain undisclosed.
    In the past 18 months or so, news stories in the Register and other papers have reported that some of the companies that have received lucrative state contracts, often without facing competition, donated to the governor’s campaign or the lottery effort."

    Paul and I had not talked in awhile. I planned to go see him after giving him a week or so to get better. Then he had his setback, from which he did not recover.
      We pissed each other off a lot, but we laughed a lot too. Never in my life have I had a working relationship anywhere near as close or as productive as the one I had with Paul Cloos.
      If Paul were here, he would say this story is getting too long, so put an end to it. We would argue, but this time, I'll let him win.
      Thanks for everything Paul. I miss you and trust I always will.